One morning in December 1972 my mother was leaﬁng through the Hamley’s toy catalogue, when something caught her eye. It was a stocking-ﬁller – a small tin, little more than an inch square, with a dark blue lid. She decided to order it. That moment ended any chance I had of a proper career. For the gift my mother had bought was Owzat! – a cricket game played by rolling a couple of hexagonal steel dice. By Boxing Day I was hopelessly addicted.
Owzat! had ﬁrst appeared between the wars, originally as a home-made game in which pencils were used instead of dice. That era was something of a golden age for cricket games. Jack Hobbs endorsed Chad Valley’s Test Match game, Glevum’s He’s Out had a photo of Walter Hammond on the box and De La Rue – who make English banknotes – issued Stumpz. With its dainty lead ﬁeldsmen, beautifully produced cards and elegant rule mechanism, Stumpz is still considered by many board game aﬁcionados to be the best cricket game ever made. Wicketz – similar, but with plastic ﬁgures – appeared in the 1980s.
I did not know this at the time, of course. Nor would I have listened if anyone had tried to tell me. I was too busy replaying the Ranji Trophy ﬁnal of 1971 (Man of the Match: Eknath Solkar).
While other boys devoted their time to learning French vocabulary, mastering the periodic table or gaining vital experience in being humiliated by women, I was locked in my own Owzat! world – rolling the dice, writing down the results and occasionally cackling gleefully and muttering, in what I imagined was the voice of John Arlott, “Four sixes in a row for Bishan Bedi – and who knew the Indian could strike the ball so cleanly?” Test series, tours of New Zealand by D. H. Robins’ XI, the Tilcon Trophy from Harrogate, all were completed in a matter of hours. And so my salad days passed in a blur of rattling steel, the scrape of the scorer’s pencil and the sound of teachers saying, “Are you listening, Pearson?”
The high point came in the winter of 1972-73 when, using the knowledge gleaned from dozens of cricket magazines, I selected an MCC tour party to take on Australia seven years in the future. Somewhere in an attic, at the back of a drawer – or in some Yorkshire landﬁll site – lurks the red, hard-covered scorebook that carries the details of England’s thrilling 3–2 win. (Draws were unknown in Owzat! which, since practically every ball was either a scoring shot, extras or a wicket, proceeded at such a rip-roaring pace it made a half-hour IPL TV highlights package look like the Timeless Test.) Those who witnessed it – me – will never forget the glorious batting of England skipper M. J. J. Faber, the ﬁery pace of Wayne Clark, or the amazing all-round feats of Yorkshire’s Graham Stevenson, who bagged 43 wickets and hit four Test hundreds, including a match-winning 154 not out at Adelaide in just ten minutes, despite his innings being temporarily halted by a pitch invasion from Mr Bennett, the physics master.
After a year, I managed to shake my Owzat! habit. It might be an uplifting tale of redemption were I to relate that I went cold turkey, weaning myself off the fateful dice by settling down and mastering logarithms. Sadly, the truth is more squalid. It turned out Owzat! was merely a gateway game. My addiction ended the day a boy who had moved to our village from Kent brought his Subbuteo table cricket set to my house.
Subbuteo cricket is a simple game. The bat is attached to a plastic handle that sticks out at right angles. The grip of this handle is manipulated between the thumb and foreﬁnger. The box boasted that one could play “all the shots”. This might have been true theoretically, but because the pea-sized red ball came at scale speeds of around Mach 2 (it was not uncommon for a middle stump to be sent ﬂying over the pavilion roof) the only shot most batsman played was a straight-drive. And since you occasionally connected with a beamer late on in the bat’s circular arc, the straight-drive sometimes sailed over the wicketkeeper’s head and went hurtling to the boundary through the position which in Victorian times might have been occupied by longstop.
Subbuteo table cricket required a large area, preferably one where china ornaments could not be shattered by the sort of pulverising hits Chris Gayle can only dream about. The ﬁeldsmen – lightweight plastic ﬁgures – were more or less useless. When a ball was smashed straight at mid-off he generally went with it across the boundary.
Despite these obvious ﬂaws there was something thrilling about Subbuteo, not least the fact that I was indulging my adolescent cricket nerdery with fellow geeks. Four of us played regularly. Or rather two played, one umpired/commentated, while the fourth scored. Rereading this sentence, I felt part of my soul wither and die.
Amazing though it seemed at the time, my parents did not regard Subbuteo table cricket as the stuff of life, and frequently demanded that the pitch be removed from the dining table so that unimportant things such as a family meal or “preparing some drawings for a new bridge in Belo Horizonte” could be undertaken. That it might be the precise moment when Peter Lee of Lancashire was at last going to get the chance to open the bowling for his country after years of being cruelly ignored by the selectors was of no matter.
Fortunately we had a fallback – Waddington’s Table Cricket. This was a much cheaper and smaller game than Subbuteo, one you could often ﬁnd in a newsagent’s shop. The Waddington’s ﬁeldsmen were made from cardboard (for some reason there were only six), bowling was carried out by rolling a ball-bearing down an angled plastic chute – a similar system is used in the more recent Peter Pan Test Match Cricket, endorsed by David Gower and Ian Botham and later Michael Atherton. There were different levels to represent a variation of pace, and a cardboard attachment that allowed you to recreate spin and swing – though as the umpire/commentator often pointed out in a fake Australian accent: “It is early swing, which makes things so much easier for the batsmen.”
The bat was a splendid Heath Robinson contraption, powered by a rubber band that was cocked, and then ﬁred with a trigger. The ball was heavy, the rubber band weak – attempts to produce a Clive Lloyd-style power-hitter by using an older sister’s hair-bobble ended with the batting machine lying in a mangled heap in front of the wicket – so less space was required. Indeed a friend and I once played an entire round of Currie Cup matches on the fold-out table in a caravan during a rainy Easter weekend in the Lake District.
As it turned out, Orange Free State v Griqualand West (for whom Fred Swarbrook unsurprisingly starred with bat and ball) would be the last overseas domestic trophy match I ever recreated. At the start of the next term I was selected for the school Under-15s, and real games of cricket supplanted my pretend games.
I’d like to say this was where things ended. But while writing this article I came across a copy of Capri Knockout Cricket on eBay, along with some rules to allow its adaptation for solo play. It’s a different format, obviously – cards, a conventional die, plastic ﬁelders, a gigantic card scoreboard – but I’ve always wondered how Faber’s England would have got on against Bruce Duperouzel’s Australians the following summer. So far things have not gone well for the tourists. Against Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk’s XI at Arundel, the Australian attack was plundered by the Rev. Andrew Wingﬁeld Digby, and their batsmen bamboozled by the spin of Harry Latchman. It’s too early to say if either man will receive an unexpected call for the First Test, but they have certainly made a case.
Oh dear, there goes my life again.